Arta Selmani (above right, pictured with her co-founder Dr Livia Ribeiro de Souza) is a two-time founder and the CEO of Mimicrete, a deep tech startup working to create self-healing concrete systems.
We chatted at Mimicrete’s base in Cambridge.
Capital Enterprise: How did you get interested in startups?
Arta Selmani: I started my career at a young age, and soon enough I was in a position of decision-making that allowed me to innovate and come up with new ideas within my role. Fascinated by emerging technologies, I turned my attention towards Silicon Valley and left home to pursue an MBA in San Francisco for two years.
During my time there, I immersed myself in entrepreneurial ecosystems and tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could, because everything was quite new to me – I was coming from rather traditional businesses. It became evident, speaking to founders, that the cost of hiring software developers was high, and there was a shortage of talent in the field. To tackle these issues, I started a small consultancy that specialised in software development using engineers from Southeast Europe. Working with startups and founders, I gained invaluable experience from their successes and failures, but I knew this venture was not my long-term goal. My desire was always to develop a technology that could solve a significant problem.
I explored various tech and science ecosystems once I decided to move on with new ideas, which led me to Cambridge, where I co-founded Mimicrete.
CE: It’s interesting that you’ve had this international experience of working in Silicon Valley before coming to the UK. What was it like?
AS: It was a fascinating experience, I was quite amazed by its enabling attitude with tremendous possibilities but at the same time it was a cut throat culture. I witnessed such a remarkable resilience of people and founders that I was working with, and the tremendous effort that was required to build something from scratch left a lasting impression on me. It could have gone either way, either scaring me away permanently, or igniting my passion for startups. I realised that this process of creating value and something new I truly love, from the journey to the destination, and seeing these accomplishments firsthand was truly exciting.
CE: Turning to Mimicrete, what’s the story behind the company?
AS: At Mimicrete, we are developing self-healing concrete technologies. My co-founders Livia [Ribeiro de Souza] and Liz [Zijing] were already working on this technology at the University of Cambridge, when I met them. After doing some thorough market research into its potential, we decided to work together and develop the product for commercialization.
The way technology works is that it mimics the vascular system of the human body. We designed these tubes that function in a similar way to the circulatory system, embedding them within concrete structures. In the event of a crack, the tube releases a self-healing agent that seals the gap, mitigating further damage to the structure.
The reasoning behind this invention is twofold. Concrete is a versatile material, it’s used worldwide and the benefits to humans, in terms of development, have been enormous. But still it’s very much prone to cracking, requiring constant repairs and adding to the production of CO2 emissions, which is as we know a major environmental concern. The second goal is to make infrastructure last longer, as such the aim is to reduce the costs of maintenance in the long run by creating the self-healing concrete structures an autonomous process and there is no need for human intervention. This extends the lifespan of the structure and that in turn reduces your carbon emissions by producing less concrete.
We certainly aren’t the first to work on the self healing technologies, other research groups looked into similar technologies, but innovation has been really incremental. Historical examples, such as the early self-healing concrete developed by the Romans, and more recent capsule and waterproof admixtures demonstrates high interest and demand in this field. While these approaches are good to some extent for small cracks, what we are trying to do is to take a step forward by incorporating a vascular system that will be capable of healing larger cracks caused by different environmental stressors.
CE: This has to be built into the structure from the start, right? You can’t insert it into an existing structure.
AS: Yes, from the start.
CE: I’d be interested to hear what the go to market strategy is like for this type of tech. When people think of startups, they often think of software. How does it work for construction?
AS: Yes, deep tech is different from software and it’s something like five to ten years to generate significant profits. But as we’ve seen, software can’t address certain problems. If we really want to solve the climate challenge, for instance, it needs a degree of patience. It’s a process to develop more complex hardware technologies, but in the long run it pays off.
The one thing we are trying to do is not remain in that testing and piloting cycle. Many startups out of universities remain with the mindset of academia but we can’t afford to be in research and development forever. The startup needs to test the market with launching a first version and then building upon that.
That’s why we have divided our entry into the market into two parts. First, we have tried to identify what’s the simplest application to enter the market? And second, we have outlined the requirements for further development as we introduce the simpler application to the market.
Currently, our primary market is infrastructure, and we will enter the market with modular applications – prefabricated products as an easier way to control production. Infrastructure projects have high costs and expenses to maintain. In fact, most new infrastructure work needs to be repaired within five years.
CE: That’s incredible. I had no idea it was so fast.
AS: Yes, it really costs a lot. So even if we cost a bit more at the outset, they save money in the long run.
So, if we divide this into phases, there are markets we can enter with a simple application, one that doesn’t need a lot of certificates. The construction industry can be quite conservative, for obvious reasons. We are currently at TRL [Testing Readiness Level] 6, to fully commercialise we need to develop the product to TRL 9, and we think we will be ready to enter the market with our first applications in about two and a half years.
We are currently working with international companies and contractors, with lots of discussions underway. We are quite excited about the new project that we have with Network Rail, as it allows us to demonstrate our technology in a high standardised, regulated environment. We think that, if the project is successful, it could significantly impact the rail industry, particularly with regards to damage to sleepers. Because when you have damaged sleepers, it’s not just the cost of the product to replace, but the reduction of productivity and efficiency, as they have to shut down that line for some time to do maintenance and that causes ripple effects throughout society. It’s very high cost on so many levels when infrastructure fails.
There are other types of applications that require more extensive testing and certifications, but we have already begun work on this and our aim is to be the pioneers in creating new standards for self healing concrete technologies.
CE: How did you meet your co-founders?
AS: While doing my master’s degree at Cambridge, which I deliberately chose to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who were interested in technology, I met Owen Thompson who was on the same course as me and had started Cambridge Future Tech. During our casual conversations about various technologies, he introduced me to this tech that was under development that piqued my interest. They introduced me to my current co-founders who were working in the Department of Engineering at that time.
After conducting for several months some due diligence on the tech and market, we decided to give it a go. As with any new venture, I had to consider the opportunity cost of dedicating a long time to this idea, and for my co-founders, coming from academia, it was quite new for them to choose something like establishing a company. However, everything worked in the end. I feel fortunate to have co-founders who share the same enthusiasm for innovation.
CE: Many of the founders I talk to have academic backgrounds, so they’re leading companies they’ve spun out of their own research or their PhD advisor’s research. What’s your advice to someone who wants to come into deep tech not as an academic, like what you’ve done?
AS: To be honest, it’s quite hard to pinpoint one way to do it. Every individual journey is unique, but what I have seen as a common trait or pattern is that most non-technical entrepreneurs have been exposed to different types of information and challenges that lead them to be able to put the pieces together to create and develop something new.
Deep tech is a highly technical and specialised field, however I think non-technical people are quite important to bring that cognitive diversity to the team. So many times I have seen teams of academics working in isolation, disregarding customers and market needs. Individuals who have been through that cycle before can offer a lot of useful assistance.
I believe that it’s important to differentiate between innovation and invention. Invention in deep tech typically happens among researchers where they come up with prototypes – which is a significant achievement. But this only represents a small percentage of the innovation process, and the majority of the effort and time is spent translating these inventions into practical and cost-effective solutions. Entrepreneurship can be challenging, but so rewarding at the same time, especially when you see what value you are bringing to the market.
CE: You said earlier other companies have created types of self-healing concrete before, but they don’t seem to have taken off. Why do you think Mimicrete is going to be different?
AS: As for everything, the timing needs to be right, and for this type of technology and industry it’s the perfect timing to push for new innovation. This is mainly due to the urgency of climate change and legal requirements for the companies to have a sustainable development. Especially in manufacturing and construction, we are witnessing a big shift in demand and a boom in new tech for the industrial sector. Also, more funds now are focused on investing in deep tech, which gives life to these projects in early stages of their formation.
CE: Final question. What more do you think could be done to support deep tech startups like yours?
AS: Deep tech startups need a lot of support because the magnitude of the problems they try to solve requires a lot of resources and expertise. So I would say number one would be capital, with higher appetite for risk from investors to focus on longer term rewards rather than short term profits. Also, access to specialised expertise, either technical or business – finding the right people is always a challenge for any startup but especially for deep tech because it’s a specific knowledge that is needed along with entrepreneurial attitude, which is not always easy to find.
Thanks for reading our Meet the Founders interview series! For more from Capital Enterprise, sign up to our monthly newsletter for entrepreneurs.